Sri Lanka’s influential ex-leader opposes land for Chinese investment

Mahinda Rajapaksa, now an opposition legislator, says the government shouldn’t lease out farmland for a Beijing-backed investment zone

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 4:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 4:46pm

Sri Lanka’s former leader has criticised a government plan to grant 6,000 hectares for Chinese investment in his constituency, saying it would deprive people of agricultural land.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, chided by the West and India for his close relations with China during his rule, is now agitating against moves by his successor, President Maithripala Sirisena, to attract investment as he seeks to rally support under a new party.

EXCLUSIVE: HOW CHINA-SRI LANKA RELATIONS ARE GETTING NEW WINGS

The Sirisena government has agreed to give the 6,000 hectares of land to China in Rajapaksa’s constituency of Hambantota, where China Merchants Port Holdings will get 80 per cent stake in a US$1.5 billion port on a 99-year lease. The government says the investment zone will create thousands of jobs.

“These are people’s agricultural lands. We are not against Chinese or Indians or Americans coming here for investment. But we are against the land being given to them and the privatisation they are doing,” Rajapaksa told the Foreign Correspondents’ Association at his official residence in Colombo on Thursday.

‘All-weather’ friends: China, Sri Lanka agree to resume controversial Colombo Port City project

He said he had discussed his concerns with Chinese officials when he visited Beijing on a one-week visit last month.

It is not clear whether his opposition and close ties to China could scupper the investment, creating further economic and diplomatic headaches for the government. China is Sri Lanka’s largest lender.

But any groundswell of opposition to giving the land to the Chinese could cause problems, especially if the government ends up having to remove local residents and farmers by force.

Some of the land is owned by the government. It is planning to pay compensation for the land it does not own. The deal is expected to be signed early next month.

“We’re worried about it,” Rajapaska said. “We don’t mind about an industrial park coming in, but not like this.”

He said 6,000 hectares was too much. Under the past regime, Sri Lanka proposed giving 300 hectares but China asked for 400. “I said no,” he said.

Rajapaksa, now a legislator in opposition benches, oversaw US$7 billion Chinese financing into Sri Lanka’s infrastructure.

Sirisena stopped most Chinese projects, including a US$1.4 billion land reclamation project launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping, citing corruption and lack of proper procedures, resulting in a bitter diplomatic relationship with Beijing. However, later Sirisena allowed the resumption of projects with China.

Sri Lanka clears the decks for controversial Chinese project

Despite his shock defeat in January 2015, Rajapaksa remains popular among Sinhala Buddhists, who account for 70 per cent of the population, because of his leadership to end a 26-year war against Tamil Tiger separatists.

He is backed by a newly formed party with about 45 legislators from the Sirisena-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

However, while Sirisena’s coalition still has a two-thirds majority in Parliament and, under the constitution, the legislature cannot be dissolved until early 2020, local and provincial elections in 2017 could see Rajapaksa making gains.